I am fascinated by time. Every moment in time is a permanent, fixed snapshot of the entire universe. In the next moment everything has changed (at least some). Time is relentless. Analogous to traveling in a car, we see where we are and can look back with certainty where we have been. We can look forward where we think we will be, but the further we look ahead, the greater the uncertainty.
As a child, I looked forward to holidays – particularly my birthday and Christmas. Time crawled as I anxiously awaited these days to arrive. They happened only once per year and in the framework of my short life, that was a very long time. Having now sailed through almost 5 decades, each year taking exactly as long as it used to, yet it sure doesn’t feel that way. The years fly by. It is like watching a wheel turn, slowly at first then faster and faster until it is just a blur.
Science fiction notions of stopping or traveling through time aside, the march of time is an immutable fact. It’s pace from the viewpoint of the observer is constant (even Einstein would agree). Time brings order and structure to our mortal lives.
God created time for our benefit. It is a canvas upon which we learn, grow and exercise our free will. It is an incubator for our soul.
God Himself is not subject to time any more than He is to anything else He created. God is completely outside of time. It is challenging for us to understand this, much as it is difficult for us to imagine our existence outside the physical world. These notions are contrary to our experience, yet we know for certain that mortal experience will end. It is just a matter of time…
For God, all moments of our time are current. There is no “past” or “future” as we know it. Among other things, this means that God knows our future. He knows the struggles we will face and the decisions we will make. He knows the hour and circumstance of our death. None of this is the “future” to God, but it is to us. This is not predestination. We live the struggle, exercise our free will, and determine our path. We are not God and the result is unknown to us.
Since God is outside of time, those in His presence are as well. Heaven is eternal for God and all who are with Him. Time does not exist there. Likewise, hell is also eternal and outside of time.
One heresy that has appeared at various points in the Church history, is the notion that souls in hell can be released and go to heaven. This error is often based upon sufficient punishment as merited by the sins of the damned, accumulation of prayers for the damned or repentance of the damned. In short, things which occur in (the non-existant) time. (The Catholic Encyclopedia explores the theology of this topic in Eternity of hell.)
Descriptions of heaven and hell have been offered as analogies by Jesus, Church Fathers, and theologians. These analogies are necessary to present the nature of these places to us in terms we can relate to. Likewise, purgatory has been described including “time in purgatory.” Unlike heaven and hell, souls in purgatory are transitional. All we know is that they are cleansed and released to heaven. The process and how “long it takes” is a mystery.
OK, mortal life is in time and immortal life is not. As earthly pilgrims enveloped by time, we are generally separated from the “other side” (except spiritually). There is one very notable exception: the Mass.
At every Mass we are joined to timeless heaven. Through the priest, Jesus himself confects the Holy Eucharist into His body, blood, soul and divinity. Not yet again, but at the Last Supper. We are present at Jesus sacrifice. Not yet again, but Calvary. We join with our Lord, the angels and saints. We are also united with each other at that Mass – and every Mass of the past, present and future. The mystery of Mass literally transcends our mortal world of time and space, giving us a taste of the heavenly kingdom!